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Mi’kmaq leader Lawrence Paul dies age 79

One of Atlantic Canada’s most colourful and longest-serving Mi’kmaq leaders, Lawrence Paul.

One of Atlantic Canada's most tenacious and longest-serving Mi'kmaq leaders, Chief Lawrence Paul is credited for turning around his community by encouraging economic development during his nearly three decades as chief, and for advocating strongly for other native communities in the region.

A tough negotiator in business and politics, he was known for refusing to take "no" for a final answer. Mr. Paul, who led the Millbrook First Nation in Truro, N.S., for 28 years until he was defeated in 2012, was fond of saying "there's always wiggle room – give the other guy a chance to wiggle."

As founding chief of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq and a founder and long-time co-chair of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs Secretariat, a policy and advocacy organization, Mr. Paul was a strong voice for native people in the region with federal and provincial governments and the business community.

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"He used to say, 'to gain respect you have to show respect,'" said Lloyd Johnson, Millbrook's former economic development officer. "It was rare not to see him in a three-piece suit. That got him a lot of respect with government officials."

Never wanting to miss an opportunity to advocate for his people, he was a widely recognizable figure, appearing regularly in the media.

"He was a very strong presence," said Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Mr. Fontaine credits Mr. Paul for gathering support in the Atlantic region to have him first elected as national chief in 1997. "He had clearly learned the art of persuasion."

When the Assembly of First Nations and the National Congress of American Indians met in Vancouver in 1999 as the largest gathering of native leadership in North America in the 20th century, Mr. Paul was there and moved the resolution to adopt the declaration of kinship and co-operation among the indigenous peoples and nations of North America, Mr. Fontaine said.

While Mr. Paul had a national presence, his focus was clearly on Millbrook, his community of 1,700 people about an hour's drive from Halifax.

"He firmly believed that economic development was the one thing that was going to make a difference in the lives of First Nations people," Mr. Fontaine said.

Under his leadership, Millbrook developed what has become known as the Truro Power Centre. Located off the province's busiest highway, the centre is a hub of retail and commercial activity. Since development began in 2000, $30-million has been invested in the creation of a hotel, restaurants, gas station and movie theatre on the centre's initial 46 acres.

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The development began in 1995 with the opening of the Treaty Gas station. An agreement in effect at the time, however, which Mr. Johnson calls racist, only allowed them to sell baskets and other handiwork.

"We believed we had a treaty right to do commerce," Mr. Johnson said. "The chief said, 'we have to take the bull by the horns.'"

Knowing that the access road from the highway to band land wasn't safe, Mr. Paul recognized that a new road connecting Millbrook with the highway was needed, not only for safety but to continue band development. But it was going to be costly. He decided to make a trip to Ottawa.

"'I'm going to see the Minister of Indian Affairs [Robert Nault] and demand an overpass,'" he told Mr. Johnson. His band council thought he was crazy. But he returned with a promise of $7-million from Ottawa for the project. An interchange was built connecting Millbrook with the highway. When the Truro Power Centre was constructed beside the interchange, Mr. Nault officially opened the centre's first stage of development and was later made an honourary chief of Millbrook, Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Paul was also at the forefront when it came to forging gaming and fishing agreements. Herb Dhaliwal, a former federal fisheries minister, credits Mr. Paul for showing leadership despite intense criticism from within the native community following the historic Supreme Court of Canada Marshall decision in 1999. After that decision, "All hell broke loose in Atlantic Canada," Mr. Dhaliwal said.

A conflict, which became known as the Burnt Church Crisis, broke out between the native and non-native fisheries in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick after the ruling acknowledged the treaty rights of Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi'kmaq man, to fish for eels out of season.

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Seeing the fisheries as a means to improve his community's economic prospects and provide needed revenue for other business development, Mr. Paul was among the first to sign a fishing agreement with the federal government, helping to pave the way for other First Nations in the Atlantic region, Mr. Dhaliwal said.

"He was very dedicated to Millbrook," Mr. Dhaliwal said. "He worked tirelessly to improve the economic opportunities."

In 2001, an $800,000 18-metre fishing vessel, named the Chief Lawrence Paul, was christened. Money for the new boat was part of an interim fishery agreement the band had signed the previous year. "I didn't really think they were going to name this vessel after me," Mr. Paul said at the time.

Born in 1934, in Saint John, Mr. Paul was one of 14 children. He was often teased by fellow chiefs who said he was born in Maliseet territory, making him part of that nation. But, in fact, he was born on the north side of the Saint John River, which is in Mi'kmaq territory, so his roots are genuinely Mi'kmaq, said his brother, Daniel Paul. From a young age he was known to wheel and deal, and used his skills to get out of work by assigning his chores to Daniel, who was younger. His family moved to the Shubenacadie Indian Reserve, now Indian Brook, in Nova Scotia, when he was a young boy. He later settled in Millbrook and got involved in politics, serving several terms as a band councillor before becoming chief.

With only a Grade 8 education, Mr. Paul later took courses ranging from bookkeeping to welding, and graduated with certificates from several programs. But he was mostly a graduate of "the University of Life," said Daniel Paul.

Mr. Paul's life wasn't without its tribulations. He spoke frankly about his lifelong struggle with alcohol addiction. His honesty connected him with people and he supported programs that helped those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. Along with economic development, he focused on improving health, education and public safety in his community.

In 2006, the Glooscap Heritage Centre was opened in the community to celebrate Mi'kmaq culture and history. A 12-metre statue of Glooscap, a spiritual legend and an important part of the Mi'kmaq history, was placed near the centre, impossible to miss from the nearby highway.

The problem was when the statue was viewed by passing vehicles, Glooscap appeared to have an erect penis protruding from his body. Though many considered the whole thing a joke, Mr. Paul was quick to react to upset business owners who said the community was becoming the butt of jokes. He told council that the statue had to be altered. Designers got to work rotating the statue's arm so it no longer stuck out and couldn't be mistaken for another part of the statue's anatomy.

Mr. Paul loved to laugh and tell stories, but he could also be tough and edgy. Meetings were never short with him as he was known to get off-subject. When he wanted something, government officials might receive a call at 6 a.m. "Sometimes, I think they gave in to him just to shut him up," Daniel Paul said.

Not one to celebrate his own aging, he put an end to plans to hold a big party in his community for his 70th birthday. "Who the hell wants to celebrate that?" he told his brother.

For his work, he received an honorary doctor of civil law degree in 2004 from Saint Mary's University. In 2009, he was named an Olympic torchbearer and carried the flame en route to the Vancouver Games.

Mr. Paul died on May 28 at the Colchester East Hants Health Centre in Truro. He was 79. He had suffered from dementia for three years, his brother said.

"He was definitely his own person," Mr. Fontaine said. "He was a loveable guy."

Mr. Paul was predeceased by his son Shawn; brothers Frank, John and Robert; sisters Francis, Eileen, Sylvia, Violet Lewis and Rhoda. He leaves his estranged wife Jane Markie; sons Terry, John and Lance; daughters Sharon and Cindy; brother, Daniel; sisters Jane, Evelyn, Rebecca and Rosalita; foster sisters, Starlene and Violet; 11 grandchildren; 19 great-grandchildren and dozens of nieces and nephews.

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